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Rosanne Cash on Her Dad's Influence and Bill Clinton's Musical Insight

Singer-songwriter opens up about her latest album 'The River and the Thread'

Rosanne Cash
Eliot Lee Hazel
January 13, 2014 1:35 PM ET

In her younger days, Rosanne Cash actively resisted the influence of her father, the late great Johnny Cash. "Like any person in their twenties," she explains, "I needed to get away from my parents to find out who I was. But in your thirties, you start appreciating who your parents are, and by your forties, you say, 'They know a couple of things — maybe I should be friends with them.'"

10 Things You Didn't Know About Johnny Cash

Apparently, in your fifties, you make albums about them. Cash, now 58, has spent her last three records actively engaged with her family and its legacy: the deaths of her parents (Black Cadillac), her father's favorite songs (The List), and now, on The River and the Thread, the American south. The genesis for the album came from a series of southern pilgrimages — Cash was helping with fundraising efforts by Arkansas State University to buy her father's childhood home in Dyess, Arkansas. The lovely, lyrical record that resulted was produced by John Leventhal, her husband and musical collaborator of the past two decades. Cash called us from their home in New York City.

Let's start with the The River and the Thread album cover. Why did you pick that image of you standing on the Tallahatchie Bridge?
One day about a year ago, John and I started in Memphis and we drove to Oxford, Mississippi and went to Faulkner’s house. Then we went to Robert Johnson’s grave in Greenwood, Mississippi — what they think is his actual grave now, there’s some dispute — and then on to Money, Mississippi, where Emmett Till was killed. Around the corner, literally, is the Tallahatchie Bridge. I was standing on the bridge, looking at the Tallahatchie River. John took that snapshot from behind, and said, "That's an album cover." It's this vortex of profound musical inspiration and revolution. The civil rights era began because of Emmett’s murder, right there, right around the corner from the Tallahatchie Bridge. It's mind-boggling. 

And you now perform Bobbie Gentry's "Ode to Billie Joe" in your live set. In your mind, what is being thrown off the Tallahatchie Bridge?
A baby. I sang it live at Carnegie Hall at the Rainforest Foundation benefit and President Clinton was in the audience. During the intermission he summoned me so that he could talk about that song, and what was thrown off the bridge, and how that song was the quintessential expression of the shame of the south. It had been an abortion, a miscarriage, and they threw it off the bridge. It was stunning that he had put so much thought into this song and what it meant to southern people.

That's a very astute reading.
It was! And it clarified my thoughts about it. It took the leader of the free world to explain the song to me. Well, the ex-leader of the free world. I was thinking, "This guy's mind is not full of other stuff? He’s had time to think about this song?" 

You were born in Memphis, but you grew up in California. What did the south mean to you when you were a child?
It was closely connected to my parents, who were both southerners, and I had family all over the south. As a kid, I was into rock'n'roll, and being in southern California, I thought I was living in the coolest place on earth. But I loved visiting the south, and then I lived there as an adult for nine years, in Nashville. I started feeling suffocated — Nashville's kind of a fishbowl. I felt that a writer needed anonymity and I didn't want to be part of that little club. I don't mean to be disparaging; I love going back now, but at the time, it wasn't comfortable for me. Also, my marriage was falling apart and I needed to get away. The things you push away when you’re young often become the very things you embrace when you’re older. 

Was there a song on this album that was particularly long in gestation?
"World of Strange Design." I had that chorus for about four years before we started making this album. It just seemed so perfect that Jesus came from Mississippi. It was about the quality of madness that's in the south, which Faulkner wrote so well about. There's a southern sensibility — it's not just part of the endless, metaphorical mall of America where everything is the same. The south is very particular: people forge instant friendships and instant intimacies, which sometimes is very troubling to me. You go up to the guy at the car rental counter, and he doesn’t even recognize you but he says, "You look tired." I didn't want to proselytize about the south — there's just a kind of poetry to be found in all of it.

My favorite line on the record is, "I'd like to have the ocean, but I'd settle for the rain." Do you remember where you were when you wrote that?
In my living room. Sometimes it feels like songs are complete in the ether and you’re just wrestling blind to try to get them. There's this great story from Tom Waits: he's in the car, he gets hit with this idea for a song, but he's on the freeway, so he can't write it down. In total frustration, he looks up at heaven and yells, "Don't you see I'm driving?" 

"Modern Blue" is about a trip to Barcelona — did that happen in real life? 
Yup. We were about to go to Barcelona and I just loved the idea of putting Barcelona and Memphis in the same song. I thought, "Do I know any songs that have Barcelona and Memphis in the same song? If I do, Dylan would have written it. I don’t think he has. 'Boots of Spanish Leather,' does that have Memphis in it? No." Kind of Blue and Joni Mitchell’s Blue were huge records for me and I said to John, “I want to make a modern Blue.” 

Well, I think it was called Interiors
Thank you. That story is mine and John’s story: world travelers, keeping our heads down and our eyes on each other.

Over the years, how has your working relationship with John changed?
In the beginning, we took all our personal stuff into the studio. "What do you mean I’m singing sharp? You don’t love me." Or "What do you mean you don’t like that solo? I’m leaving!" We worked that out. Sometimes we still get our feelings hurt. There were plenty of times we went head to head on this record, but it's not with that sense of personal woundedness that we used to have. 

Is there a song in your catalog where you have a very different view of it than you did when you were younger?
Sure. I was singing "Blue Moon With Heartache," which I wrote when I was twenty-three. While I was singing it, I thought, "How did this little girl write this song? She didn’t really know what she was talking about." Then, it felt like heartbreak, and now it has a patina of sweetness to me. "Seven Year Ache" feels much the same way. Some of them I see as almost rudimentary. But I appreciate that now: I had to write those to get to these. 

They have the virtue of unselfconsciousness.
Right, and the hubris. I’m going to go up against Lennon and McCartney! Here it is!

When do you feel most like yourself?
When I’m writing and when I’m managing my child’s life. I have a fourteen year old at home, so the dentist and the tutor and the pickup time, all of that is very grounding to me. I grew up in a chaotic world and things like going out with John to buy a refrigerator and knowing where the post office is, those things are really important to me. I know that some people think that to expand as an artist you have to get away from that. Those things make me feel safe.

Were there years in your life where you didn’t know where the post office was?
I didn’t know where a post office was until I was 38-years old. 

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